CHAMPAIGN – The last thing an actor wants to do is judge his or her character, Alan Rickman says.
"It's particularly a challenge to play people who actually lived, like Rasputin or Michael Collins," said Rickman, who has portrayed the Russian mystic and the Irish independence leader. "I feel a huge responsibility not to judge them."
In "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," shown Thursday night at the Virginia Theatre as part of Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, the actor portrays a fictional 16th-century baron who is devoted to his daughter and tries to protect her from an unknown serial killer. The murderer is a young man who has the most acute smell of anyone on earth; he is obsessed with trying to preserve in perfume the scent of young women.
The 2006 movie, directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and based on a novel by Patrick Suskind, was a hit in Europe but not with U.S. critics, except Ebert. He saw it last year after a "reconnaissance team" that included his wife, Chaz, abducted him from his hospital room and took him, with nurses, to a private screening room.
"Roger was just so gleeful. He was not happier than he is back in that La-Z-Boy," she said, pointing to her husband in the back of the Virginia Theatre.
Ebert, who is recovering from cancer surgery, liked "Perfume" so much that he wrote a review from his hospital room. The critic described it as dark and brooding.
"There is nothing fun about the story, except the way it ventures so fearlessly down one limited, terrifying, seductive dead end, and finds there a solution both sublime and horrifying," he wrote. "It took imagination to tell it, courage to film it, thought to act it, and from the audience it requires a brave curiosity about the peculiarity of obsession."
Rickman said he had almost agreed to appear in the film before he read the script because he admires Tykwer's work so much. "I was keen to work with him," he said. He went on to say that the movie "hits us somewhere very deep and dark." Rickman also praised the performance of Ben Whishaw, who plays the scent-obsessed killer Grenouille.
"That performance makes nonsense of awards ceremonies," Rickman said. "That's wonderful acting without much dialogue."
Rickman said "Perfume" was the most expensive film to come out of Germany, and that it took Tykwer and crew a week to shoot the crowd scene near the end. In it, Grenouille stands on a platform, about to be executed. A frenzied crowd falls under his spell as he waves a handkerchief on which he has dripped the perfume he made from the scent of his victims. The people take off their clothes and begin to make love.
"If I had any influence on that scene it was telling Tom, 'For God's sake, get a group of dancers at the center of it,'" Rickman related. "With just extras, there wouldn't have been a core." The 50 to 60 dancers hired created a spiral of energy that moved outward, Rickman said.
"It was a very moving experience to watch them do that scene, hour after hour, day after day," he continued. "It actually became about courage. Those people were actually very brave and very open. I dread to think what that scene would be like with 2,000 English extras."
Rickman was asked about other directors he's worked with as well. He is currently shooting a screen version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, "Sweeney Todd." With Burton, an actor has to intuit what he wants from the way he bounces around the set, Rickman said.
"With Ang Lee," the actor said of the University of Illinois graduate, "it's a question of trying to work out what he wanted literally because his command of English is so loose. At the end of one scene (in 'Sense and Sensibility') he told Emma Thompson, 'Try not to look so old.' He told me, 'Be more subtle. Do more.' I think he meant do more of the subtle work."
Rickman, a British actor whose first movie role was as the villain in the 1988 American movie, "Die Hard," has played leading men, villains and comedic roles, both on screen and on the stage, including with the Royal Shakespeare Company. During the post-"Perfume" discussion, Ebertfest director Nate Kohn asked how he chooses his roles.
The actor said it's more a matter of "looking in the mirror and making sure you're not going to look ridiculous." Later, though, he said he tends to choose roles that he hasn't done before, and that he likes to take risks. He also said people tend to overestimate the choice actors have.
Rickman, who was a graphic artist before he went into acting, also said he never expected to have a film career. "I never thought it would be part of my life. It was a bit of a shock." He is probably now best known to moviegoers, particularly younger ones, as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. A young woman in the audience asked Rickman what Professor Snape would have thought of Grenouille's "miracle potion."
"Who knows what Professor Snape thinks about anything," he replied.